Wednesday, May 23, 2012
To say I've been under stress for a couple years would be an understatement. According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, I score pretty high.
Here's their list of stressful life events and the points associated with each. Add the number of "Life Change Units" that apply for the past year to get your score. Interpretation of the score is below the list.
Death of a spouse 100
Marital separation 65
Death of a close family member 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Dismissal from work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Change in health of family member 44
Sexual difficulties 39
Gain a new family member 39
Business readjustment 39
Change in financial state 38
Death of a close friend 37
Change to different line of work 36
Change in frequency of arguments 35
Major mortgage 32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Change in responsibilities at work 29
Child leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Spouse starts or stops work 26
Begin or end school 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in working hours or conditions 20
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 20
Change in recreation 19
Change in church activities 19
Change in social activities 18
Minor mortgage or loan 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in number of family reunions 15
Change in eating habits 15
Minor violation of law 11
Score of 300+: At risk of illness.
Score of 150-299+: Risk of illness is moderate (reduced by 30% from the above risk).
Score 150-: Only have a slight risk of illness.
My score for the past year is 206. Ugh. If you add in events that go back three years, I top out over 400 points.
My divorce, a move and change in financial status and living conditions, a new job, death of a close friend, my mother's two surgeries, the auto accident and my injuries, holidays, vacations -- it all adds up.
So it's no wonder I've struggled with some stress-related health issues. And that's what led me to watch a fascinating National Geographic documentary called STRESS: The Silent Killer. What an eye opener! And sometimes in a scary way.
I'm going to recap some of the info I found most interesting. (CAUTION: Geek Alert!)
Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky says that that people, apes and monkeys are intelligent and sociable creatures with a lot of free time. So why do we suffer from more stress-related illness than other animals?
"Primates are super smart and organized just enough to devote their free time to being miserable to each other and stressing each other out," he said. "But if you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, you're going to compromise your health. So, essentially, we've evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick."
Not encouraging, huh?
We respond to stress by releasing hormones that increase our heart rate and energy level. It's the fight or flight response. These hormones help us survive threats. But we also release these hormones during non-threatening stress. And the long-term exposure to them increases our chances of cardio-vascular disease, diabetes and gastrointestinal disorders. The immune system can be compromised and brain function related to learning and memory can be affected as well.
Children who suffer massive stress often exhibit a syndrome called stress dwarfism because normal growth hormones are suppressed.
Sapolsky studies baboons, which live in social environments where there are type-A baboons and low-ranking ones -- very much like our society. He found that social rank and personality play significant roles, but social isolation may be even more important.
Another scientist, Dr. Carol Shively of Wake Forest University, has studied macaque monkeys for over thirty years and found that psychological stress increased the amount of visceral fat (AKA belly fat) in her subjects. This same phenomenon is found in humans. I have only to look around the divorce recovery group I facilitate to see woman after woman after woman with extra weight around the middle. It can't be coincidence, since divorce is #2 on the stress list.
What was very encouraging, however, were the findings that social support can help reverse some of the deleterious effects of stress. According to Sapolsky, happiness and self-esteem are important factors in reducing stress. And contrary to popular opinion, neither are necessarily related to money. Some of the poorest countries have some of the happiest citizens.
Studies have also suggested that chronic stress affects our DNA. The ends of our chromosomes are called telomeres. They shorten with age and the exposed ends begin to fray. Stress accelerates the shortening process. Telomerase is an enzyme that heals stress damage to the telomeres. This is getting pretty technical, but hang with me folks because there's good news.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, the 2009 Nobel Prize winner for medicine, has found that connecting with others helps increase production of telomerase. Compassion and caring for others can help us heal ourselves.
Several of us here at the Writing Playground have blogged about Random Acts of Kindness. You can go up to the top left corner of the blog, type in "random acts of kindness" and find all the blog posts about it. Well, it seems those RAKs really are good for us.
Getting together with others and talking about your problems is good too. Dr. Blackburn visited a group of mothers, all of whom had children with special needs. She found that their fellowship and camaraderie helped them cope with the brutally stressful roles they played. These mothers laughed and cried with each other and left each meeting feeling uplifted and a little bit better about the day.
I have the Playfriends to get together with. We're actually in the process of planning a dinner and sleepover soon. We'll talk, we'll plot and brainstorm and no doubt we'll bitch. But we'll all feel better when our time together is over.
I also have my divorce support group. We talk, we help and encourage each other and we bitch. And we always feel better when our time together is over. I also act in the capacity of facilitator, and invariably helping someone else deal with the grief of divorce helps me chip away at the grief of mine.
Do you have a group you get with to help you cope with whatever it is that stresses your life? Just remember that stressed spelled backwards is DESSERTS!
*Gnilleps is one of the spelling challenges in the board game, Cranium, which is a favorite pasttime of the Playfriends. And in case you haven't figured it out, gnilleps is spelling spelled backwards.